Pittsburghers love to show out-of-town visitors the inclines, the dinosaurs at the Carnegie, the view from Mount Washington, the sandwiches with cole slaw and French fries piled inside, and other attractions of the big city. But often what the visitors talk about most is that they can’t believe how those houses cling to the side of a cliff. Here are some views of the South Side Slopes from the Bluff across the river, so that you can show out-of-town friends who have not yet visited that houses do indeed grow that way in Pittsburgh.
South Side Slopes
South Side Slopes Houses
The acute angle of the intersection of Crosman Street with 18th Street on the South Side Slopes creates two odd-shaped lots filled with odd-shaped buildings, both of them irregular pentagons. Above, the one on the south side of Crosman is smashed up against a cliff, with a big billboard for its neighbor: South 18th Street is the old Brownsville Plank Road, and still the main route down from the South Hills neighborhoods to the South Side. Below, the house on the north corner sits at the head of a row of little Pittsburgh rowhouses, each of them altered according to the whims of decades of owners. The corner house is festooned with aluminum awnings; three of the other houses have aluminum awnings over the front doors, and two of them (the last two down the hill) are genuine Kool Vent awnings.
These little rowhouses are a good example of the persistence of tradition in Pittsburgh vernacular architecture. They seem to have been put up in the early 1900s, with 1903 as a terminus post quem according to the Pittsburgh Historic Maps site; but they differ very little from the tiny, narrow rowhouses of the Civil War era.
Billy Buck Hill
South 18th Street, which used to be the Brownsville Plank Road before it was taken into the city of Pittsburgh, snakes up through the South Side Slopes, following an ancient track that probably predates European settlement. It makes a long loop around a lumpy eminence known locally as Billy Buck Hill, where typical tall and narrow Slopes houses crowd on absurdly precipitous lots. These houses in the foreground are lined up along St. Paul Street. In the background, across the Mon, we see Oakland, which is as usual full of cranes.
The usual story of the etymology of Billy Buck Hill has to do with goats having been kept there, and that seems plausible. But old Pa Pitt is not willing to swear to it, because it has the look of one of those ex-post-facto etymologies suggested speculatively as the probable reason for the name, and then picked up as the only possible explanation and presented as fact.
Dome of St. Josaphat Church, South Side Slopes
The distinctive dome of St. Josaphat Church, designed by John T. Comès, as seen from the Flats below.
W. Daub Building, South Side Slopes
This frame Second Empire building was put up in the 1880s, and old maps show it as belonging to W. Daub. It has seen better days: it has been sheathed in aluminum, and what was probably a storefront looks as though it has been filled in with a contractor’s remnants. If we look at the third floor, we can see a few lingering bits of what was once very decorative folk-art woodwork. Doubtless all the windows and doorways had similarly carved trim until the siding salesman came along. If old Pa Pitt had to guess, he would imagine this was a neighborhood hotel, which is to say a bar with rooms above to earn a “hotel” liquor license. You would hardly guess from the exterior, but there is still a working bar on the ground floor, apparently much beloved by the locals.
Power House for the Mount Oliver Incline
Most Pittsburghers with an interest in local history know that there were many inclines operating in the city a hundred years ago. Few know that part of the Mount Oliver Incline is still here. The incline itself closed in 1951, and the stations are gone, but the power house, which was across Warrington Avenue from the upper station, still stands. It has been converted into a shop for a heating and air-conditioning contractor.
Mary L. Bayer House, South Side Slopes
Just about every ugly thing that can happen to an old house has happened to this once-grand Second Empire mansion on the back end of Warrington Avenue. It has been sheathed in artificial siding. All the windows have been replaced with windows and doors in the wrong shapes. Almost all the trim has been removed (if you enlarge the picture, you can find a tiny remnant in the pediment over the front entrance). The porch has been replaced with treated lumber, which manufacturers assure us never has to be painted and therefore is always allowed to decay into even uglier colors than it was originally. The front entrance has been replaced with cheap doors from a home center.
Yet, with all that, there is still a pleasing symmetry to the house that gives it a kind of senescent dignity. At present, it stands in a nice working-class neighborhood where houses are worthless, or at least not worth enough to make any substantial work on this one profitable. But it has a magnificent view of the city, and if someone with a little money were to adopt it, it could be remade into an attractive single-family mansion again, or a more attractive apartment house.
Old Pa Pitt does not know the history of this house. On the Pittsburgh Historic Maps site, it first appears on the 1890 layer, suggesting that it was built in the 1880s. From then until 1923, it is marked as belonging to Mary L. Bayer or M. L. Bayer.
Skyline from the South Side Slopes
The skyline of downtown Pittsburgh as seen from the back end of Warrington Avenue on the South Side Slopes.
St. Josaphat’s in Black and White
Two attempts at arty photography with the old Samsung Digimax V4 set on monochrome mode. We also have more ordinary color pictures of St. Josaphat’s.
St. Josaphat’s War Memorial, South Side Slopes
A memorial to the large number from St. Josaphat’s who served in both World Wars. It stands across the narrow street from the church, set into the hillside, with a statue of Christ displaying his Sacred Heart and welcoming us to stop and read the names. As you can guess from the names if you enlarge the picture, St. Josaphat’s was a Polish congregation.